Dangers Don’t Daunt City Firefighter
HARRISONBURG — Just as firefighters from Harrisonburg, Clover Hill and Hose Company No. 4 respond to Bridgewater for structure fires, so do units throughout the nation for forest infernos, like the Arizona blaze that claimed 19 lives Sunday night.
Harrisonburg Fire Department’s Lt. Jeff Rhodes was one of these reinforcements through the U.S. Forest Service from 1989 to 1992, while also volunteering with the Bridgewater Fire Department.
“We did a lot of mop-up work. You go in and mop up the hot spots so the fire won’t reignite,” Rhodes said about his experience working wildfires in Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming.
Rhodes assisted elite firefighting crews like the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Ariz., who died when they were overcome by fire after the wind suddenly changed direction near Yarnell, Ariz.
Hotshots, who are extensively trained and extremely fit, tote chain saws and other equipment to create a fire line by digging, cutting and clearing a space of bare dirt to stop the fire, Rhodes said.
“When we have a house fire, it’s [constant] for 20 to 30 minutes. These guys are on the line for half a day at a time,” said Rhodes, a 20-year HFD veteran.
“After an eight- and 12- and 14-hour shift,” fire crews need fresh legs, he said.
The recent run of exceptionally hot and windy weather in the West makes the region particularly vulnerable to forest fires.
“They’re probably facing about the worst fire conditions that they could have due to the weather,” Rhodes said.
The Shenandoah Valley’s forest fire season comes more in spring and fall because the humidity of summer keeps them away, he said.
In spite of Sunday’s tragedy in Arizona, accounting for the biggest death toll among firefighters in a wildfire in the last 80 years, Rhodes won’t think twice about rushing to the scene when the alarm sounds.
“You think about it, but it doesn’t change how you operate,” he said. “You feel for the family members of the [firefighters] that are killed, but you still gotta do it, you still gotta do your job.”
Understanding the job’s inherent danger, he takes solace in his faith and knowing he’s serving the greater good.
“It’s not in our hands, that’s in God’s. That’s just the way it is,” Rhodes said. “Maybe that makes it easier.”
Contact Alex Rohr at 574-6293 or email@example.com